When someone talks about South Street, they’re generally thinking about the famed eastern side of the corridor. Depending on when you were born, you might think fondly about seeing a show at Grendel’s Lair or JC Dobbs or Ripley’s. No matter your age, you probably have a love/hate thing with the TLA. So many businesses have come and gone on this corridor over the years, and at least as far back as 1963, it’s been considered “the hippest street in town.”

South Street West, AKA the section of South Street on the other side of Broad, is oft forgotten in comparison to the other side of South, but it has been on an upward trajectory for more than a decade. Longtime stalwarts like Bob & Barbara’s have held down the fort over the years, but slowly, long vacant buildings and lots have filled in over the years , repopulating a depressed commercial corridor. Unfortunately, the Royal Theater has been sitting vacant and slowly deteriorating at 1524 South St. since the 1970s, stunting the corridor’s potential.

View of the building in the 1970s

For those that don’t know the history, the Royal was designed by Frank E. Hahn and was constructed around 1919. The theater targeted African American audiences, featuring movies with black stars and performances by prominent black entertainers. In 1970 though, the theater closed its doors, meeting a similar fate to many great movie houses of the day. Michael Singer bought the building in 1973 but did nothing with the property in the years that followed. The Preservation Alliance bought the building in 1998 and sold it to Universal Companies two years later for $300K. Included in that sale were the surrounding lots on South and Kater Street, all of which were sitting vacant. Over time, Universal came up with a few different plans for the property, most recently in 2011, but it wasn’t until they partnered with Dranoff Properties in 2014 that redevelopment seemed like a realistic possibility.

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In 2014
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Back of the building on the 1500 block of Kater in 2014

A few different renovation and redevelopment plans came down the pike, but ultimately a new developer named Robert Roskamp stepped forward to purchase the property in 2017. Roskamp’s plan called for the demolition of the historic theater and the construction of a new mixed-use building surrounding its preserved facade. That work is now mostly complete, except for the opening of a relocated Rex 1516 in the commercial space. JKRP Architects did the design work for the project.

The Royal, reborn
Closer view of the old facade

A second phase of the project is currently under construction, with seven townhomes appearing on Kater Street behind the new apartment building. These homes should be finished later this year and should sell at seven figure prices. Compared to the old situation on this block of Kater Street, which combined a huge blank brick wall with several vacant lots, this will be an obvious step up.

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View on the 1500 block of Kater
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Kater Street, viewed from the east

While the change on Kater Street will be mostly appreciated by the residents of this block, the change to South Street makes a huge difference to the South Street West corridor as a whole. Replacing an empty and blighted building and several vacant lots with a new apartment building that adds density to the corridor as well as a large commercial tenant is certainly a giant positive. The new Royal won’t suddenly turn South Street West into a copy of its more famous eastern version, but this project represents a 180 for a property that has held back this corridor for a couple generations. We can’t wait to check out the new and improved Rex in the coming months, and have our fingers crossed for some karaoke.

Note: OCF Realty, parent company of Naked Philly, has managed the development of this property.